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The Naked Truth

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

by Helen Vendler
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 672 pp., $35.00

A man urges a younger man, of much higher social status, to consider his duty to have children for his own good and that of his family:

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
(Sonnet No. 2)

Persuasion along this line is kept up by means of ingenious arguments and parallels; and as it continues the poet-pleader finds his relation to the other man insensibly altering. A new note of involuntary intimacy creeps into the urgent respect of his demeanor.

O that you were your self! but, love, you are
No longer yours than you yourself here live.
(No. 13)

Without ceasing to be respectful the poet becomes first familiar, then passionate.

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:…
(No. 22)

He feels he has the other’s heart, even if he has just lost his own, and he has it “not to give back again.” Nothing can be done about it, but the friend is urged “to read what silent love hath writ,” and learn to “hear with eyes” (No. 23). Whatever the friend’s beauty may suggest, he is not physically a woman, so there can be no question of sex between them (a joke is made of this), but the friend is both fickle and coquettish and is soon upsetting his poet, who “has still the loss,” even if the other repents of his wanton behavior (No. 34). The poet is too much in love to feel bitter, but he wonders at himself and at the irrevocable damage that this passion has done him, wasting not only his heart but his precious time.

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
(No. 57)

The most penetrating of these love complaints, and the one, it may be, most painfully recognized by the reader’s own experience of falling in love, is Shakespeare’s sense of the loved one’s casual indifference, however much he may “play along” with the poet’s infatuation. Sonnet 61 presents us with the bitter knowledge that the loved one shows no jealousy, or even curiosity, about what his friend (or slave) may be up to when they are apart, while the man who feels true love is devoured with speculation and anxiety on just this point. This, for the poet, is the great test of the real thing, and he concludes, “O no, thy love, though much, is not so great.”

The poet’s only hope is that his verses on the young man’s beauty will outlast time itself. But even here there is a sudden danger, for the young nobleman has begun to extend his patronage to a rival poet. “The proud full sail” (No. 86) of the other poet’s verse is not the problem, only that our poet’s own genius will forsake him and be “enfeebled” if the other is preferred. He continues to love, but he is also sad and disillusioned.

Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate.
(No. 87)

The poet meditates on his own loss, on the nature of “They that have pow’r to hurt,” and by implication on the discovery, not so different from that made by the novelist Scott Fitzgerald three hundred years or so later, that “the rich are different from you and me.”

But the worst is yet to come. The poet has a dark-haired girlfriend, and to distract himself he now takes to praising her by dispraise. (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” No. 130) In a sudden dramatic revelation, we learn that the friend has met the girl, who has always led the poet on, and she has bewitched him until he is now as much involved as the poet himself. The poet addresses her forcefully:

Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed…
(No. 133)

The friend must not be blamed: indeed by a paradox, and though unavailingly, he has done the generous thing.

Him have I lost, thou hast both him and me;
He pays the whole, and yet I am not free.
(No. 134)

And so the poet is left with two loves “of comfort and despair.”

The better angel is a man right fair;
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
(No. 144)

The drama is over. Has it all been made up? Was it an ingenious piece of virtual reality, a “real” play, invented by a poet-dramatist, perhaps to flatter and to fascinate a clever young grandee to whom the poet was genuinely and deeply attracted? Did the poet want not merely support and patronage but the equality of regard and affection given each other by two men who fall in love? Or was it only a make-believe, a lyric exercise that developed at the magic touch of a master playwright?

Ah, that’s the question, as Pushkin, another great and enigmatical poet, was in the habit of saying. It is the question at least for most of the critics, historians, and Shakespeare buffs who have considered the sonnets, but not for a more austere minority. In her learned and equable way Helen Vendler is the latest of the critics to disregard all the fuss, and in-stead to concentrate, as her title makes plain, on how the poetry of the Sonnets works: What notes and harmonies, familiar and unsuspected, are there for critic and reader to ponder over and to trace out?

She recognizes of course that a real man, Shakespeare, must himself be involved. In what way might the art of his sonnets involve an actual experience? Other writers, past or present, might themselves help to answer that question. Anthony Powell, doyen at ninety-two of English novelists, and one who has created a panorama of English society, has remarked on several occasions nonetheless that a writer can do no other than “write what he is.”

The dictum is worth pondering in relation not only to more or less modern novelists but to great writers in the past. In what sense did Homer or Dante or Shakespeare write themselves? Dante perhaps did so most clearly, through peopling hell, purgatory, and heaven with his acquaintances and contemporaries. As a dramatist Shakespeare is telling tragic or comic histories, telling them no doubt in his own way; as a sonneteer he had license, if he wanted it, to be present himself among his own dramatis personae. The sonnet form had traditionally been used for the purpose: its structure had even evolved to give the impression that it was being so used. “Fool! said my muse to me,” exclaimed Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophel and Stella, “look in thy heart and write.” The exhortation becomes conventional. Nonetheless Wordsworth, himself the most confiding of poets, took it at face value, and wrote in admiration of the Elizabethan sonnet form that “with this key/Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” “If so, the less Shakespeare he!” retorted Browning.

Browning held that the Bard had given nothing away, while Wordsworth assumed that his handling of the sonnet form had done the job for him. The point at issue becomes tautologous, or a truism, if we assume with Anthony Powell that a writer has no choice but to write what he is, or, as Henry James more circumspectly put it, “to be present on every page from which he so laboriously sought to remove himself.” In relation to the vast volumes of speculation that have been begotten by Shakespeare’s Sonnets the point seems important, however illusory it may turn out to be, and it is this that has divided the scholars, roughly speaking, into two camps: those who hold that a “real story,” and a fascinating one, is present in the Sonnets; and those who maintain that in his sonnet sequence Shakespeare is both novelist and dramatist, transmuting invention into the passion, or dispassion, of art, writing himself, rather than about what had actually happened to him.

Commentators in every age have given us much by way of elaborate argument, and yet the problem—if indeed it is one—is no nearer solution. Scholars in the first camp hold that there must be a solution, though it may never be found. Those in the second maintain that the whole concept of a “real story” is meaningless. Helen Vendler, wisest and most penetrating of today’s close critics, chooses to approach the Sonnets—not the “problem” of the Sonnets—by a different route. She takes for granted what is obvious, and yet about which so much ink has been spilled: that the emotions—sex, love, jealousy, envy, despair, and longing, to name only a few—are all present in the Sonnets, and in the peculiarly intense and virulent shape that art and experience can give to this particular verse form. Inevitably the emotions become dramatized into a story about a real story; inevitably that story is the author’s, though not necessarily about him. The point can be waived.

Of course many readers prefer not to do so, in which case the Sonnets are, so to speak, perfectly happy to oblige. The Elizabethan historian A.L. Rowse is sure that his erudition in the period has revealed to him who the Dark Lady really was, what references Shakespeare makes to the Spanish Armada—the “mortal moon”—to Queen Elizabeth, the Earl of Southampton, and many other events and persons of the time. Such references may be all a part of the enigmatic melody of the Sonnets, their “unity of play,” as Helen Vendler puts it—a byproduct of “all the language games in which words can participate”; or they may be as real and humdrum as the news of the day we take for granted when we converse with friends. As Vendler briskly shows, Shakespeare when he wanted could write a masterly sonnet expounding a well-known historical reference, as he does at the end of Henry V. But the Sonnets in themselves are a different matter. Within them public and private event are equally equivocal, and aesthetically speaking equally irrelevant.

The Oxford Elizabethan scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones has just published an edition of the Sonnets in the classic Arden Shakespeare, whose introduction gives us a fascinating and persuasive study of the “human” element in the Sonnets. She comes down squarely on the side of Shakespeare’s being a homosexual, or perhaps discovering his homosexuality in his own amazement at his growing passion for the beautiful nobleman, and the intensity with which he found his art recording it. She also inclines to the view that this nobleman was the Earl of Pembroke rather than the Earl of Southampton (both incidentally had well-known homosexual inclinations) and that some of the sonnets are therefore quite late, written, or perhaps rewritten and revised, not long before they were first published in 1609.

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